Christopher Plummer, the cross, and the swastika

The Church and the Third Reich in the actor’s two most “Catholic” films (and why I will always regret seeing one of his worst movies)

SDG Original source: National Catholic Register

“That damn movie follows me around like an albatross,” Christopher Plummer once fumed about the one film for which — despite a prolific, varied, successful career in film, television, and theater — he would always be best known.

Only a few years later, though, the Canadian actor, who died on February 5 at the age of 91, appeared to have a change of heart of sorts. “The very best of its genre — warm, touching, joyous and absolutely timeless,” he enthused in his 2008 memoir, In Spite of Myself, describing a viewing of The Sound of Music at an Easter party with children.

“I had not seen the movie for years and the more I watched, the more I realized what a terrific movie it is. … I could suddenly see why it had brought such pleasure to so many people.”

In a film career stretching more than 60 years, Plummer appeared in many terrific films — and, even when the films weren’t so terrific, he was always a pleasure to watch.

Career highlights include supporting roles in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992), Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999), Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind (2001), and Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005). A decade ago he became the oldest actor to win an Oscar for his role in Mike Mills’ Beginners (2010), in which he played an elderly widower who comes out as gay.

Bible film fans knew him as Herod Antipas in Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977) and the narrator of The Gospel of John (2003); he also voiced Herod the Great in Timothy Reckart’s not-so-great computer-animated Nativity story The Star (2017).

The shadow of Captain von Trapp is long enough that as often as I’ve watched the later film — and I’ve watched both The Scarlet and the Black and The Sound of Music far more often than any of his other films — it’s always a bit unsettling to see that familiar face, between 15 and 20 years older, underneath a Nazi Totenkopf (the skull and crossbones insignia on Nazi military caps). Adding to the dissonance, Kappler is a family man with two adorable children, including a daughter named Liesel!

He was at his best, perhaps, in antagonistic roles that exploited his aristocratic bearing and air of reserve at least bordering on arrogance.

In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) he brought gravitas and complexity to a Klingon general with an eyepatch bolted to his face. In Pete Docter’s Up (2009) he invested a mad explorer-inventor with twisted humanity and humor. He had a magnificent eleventh-hour triumph in Rian Johnson’s brilliant Knives Out (2019) as an imperious, calculating patriarch who didn’t think much of his privileged brood but had a soft spot for his Latina nurse.

And, while Plummer has become in recent years a social-media icon of resistance to fascism and neo-Nazism via a popular animated gif of the memorable shot of Captain von Trapp indignantly ripping a German Reich flag in half, the other role of his that most stands out for me is in another fact-based World War II film with an intensely Catholic milieu — one that finds the actor wearing the swastika on his arm.